The 2019 Honolulu Biennial, where contemporary artists from Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas converged this spring to mount installations, sculptures, performances, and to party at a certain artist-run pop-up called the SaVAge K’lub, didn’t feel like any other art-world event: there were no white cube galleries, and almost no white men.
In terms of gender, race, and geography, the Honolulu Biennial achieved a level of diversity that is rare among international art events, which are disproportionately white, western, and male. Among the 47 artists and collectives featured around Honolulu, almost half were women, a majority were of indigenous descent, and they came from everywhere from Japan to Mexico to Bougainville.
“It was at the forefront of our minds,” says curator Nina Tonga, when asked about the biennial’s diversity. “These things don’t happen by accident,” she says, adding that it was her goal to “to show the diversity, the wide range of voices and politics” in the Pacific. “That gender balance to me is so important—where else could it happen but in our own home part of the world?”
From the outset, Tonga, who is is also a curator of Pacific art at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, sought to create an art event that didn’t recreate the typical. “When you attend biennials and triennials, they become models,” she says. Putting together this biennial made Tonga think more critically about the methods and traditions she was trained in as a curator. “We were constantly thinking of how we could create a biennial that was to our own model.” The result: an inclusive, engaging event that spread over more than ten sites throughout Honolulu, including public spaces, and which had more than 90 free programs.
“Our challenge was what do we leave behind? These things are so temporary,” says Tonga. “I think when you think beyond the exhibition-making, beyond the four walls of the gallery, when you actually start investing in people, and in relationships, in memories, you create things that last longer—and that shifts you completely.”
Ahead of the biennial’s closing week, BAZAAR.com spoke to three exciting, socially engaged contemporary artists whose stories and work stood out in Honolulu.
Florence Jaukae Kamel
Florence Jaukae Kamel, an artist and women’s rights activist from Papua New Guinea, works in textiles. Her work is based on bilum, a form of weaving practiced by women in Papua New Guinea and traditionally used to create bags. Bilum is deeply symbolic of gender: the word also means “womb,” bilum bags are often used to carry babies, and the weaving knowledge is passed down from mother to daughter. Jaukae Kamel extends the bilum weaving technique beyond its traditional boundaries to create clothing and large-scale textile installations. Her bilum pieces sometimes address the legacy of colonialism or incorporate kina shells, which represent money. “A lot of my work has to do with the value of women,” she says.
In addition to her art, Jaukae Kamel organizes a bilum cooperative that helps weavers achieve economic independence. In 2002, the artist also became the first woman in her home town of Goroka, in the Eastern Highlands, to be elected to the local council. She was an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and against violence. “It was a tough fight, going against men,” she says. She lost her bid for reelection, but she did secure some seed funding for the cooperative, which now numbers more than 50 members.
As a child in Goroka, Jaukae Kamel learned to weave from her mother and grandmother. She married during high school, and her formal education ended in the 10th grade. When she later left her marriage, she had to support her five children by herself, without any financial support from her ex-husband. In Papua New Guinea, Jaukae Kamel explains, land and other assets are passed down through the male side, and aren’t considered marital property. This leaves divorced and widowed women economically vulnerable, and makes women less free to leave abusive or unsuitable partners. Papua New Guinea has among the highest rates of gender-based violence in the world. According to a UN report, 67 percent of Papua New Guinea women have suffered domestic abuse, and 50 percent of married women have been victims of marital rape.
Post-divorce, Jaukae Kamel was dispossessed of land, but she had something that nobody could take away: her knowledge of weaving. “The only thing that had me going was the the bilum weaving skill that my mother taught me,” she says. “That was my passport into my life.” Rent, food, school fees—Jaukae Kamel slowly created it all with bilum. She wove a new life with her hands.
Through the Goroka cooperative, she helps other women do the same. She estimates about 80 percent of the weavers are single women who are family breadwinners. “Their priority basically is education for their children, health for themselves and the children, and clothes, foodstuffs, building a house,” she says. The biggest stockist for their bags is the Australian retailer Among Equals.
Jaukae Kamel’s art has been displayed at museums including the Australian Museum and Te Papa, and she has taught workshops around the world. When she is making a bilum piece, she takes inspiration from various sources—songs, mythology, movies, her feelings and imaginings. “I tell my story,” she says. “A poet writes a poem, a carver carves his story, and for a painter, they paint their stories. As a bilum weaver, I’m weaving my stories.”
The SaVAge K’lub occupies a rented storefront in Honolulu’s Chinatown, close to several other biennial installations. It’s led by Rosanna Raymond, a New Zealand performance artist, poet, and curator of Samoan descent, and it serves as a kind of informal hub for biennial artists, attendees, and curious passersby. Raymond and the other members have transformed the space. One wall is stenciled with a hail of bombs and a helicopter— references to Hawaii’s military ties. Another wall mural features tents used by the homeless and the controversial telescope proposed for the sacred peak of Mauna Kea.
View this post on Instagram
Ruth Woodbury #SKHBHQ Honoured to photograph & collaborate on these portraits of the SaVAge K'lub crew for the 2019 Honolulu Biennial. Be sure to visit our headquarters and check out the portraits at 1109 Nu'uanu Avenue, Honolulu, Hawaii. #Photography #Photo #Portait #Portaiture #Art #Colour #Creative #Maori #Aotearoa #Chinese #Polynesian #Pacific #Oceania #Hawaii #Oahu #Honolulu #HonoluluBiennial19 #Decolonize #Indigenous #SavageKlub #Reclaim #Reimagine
Stylish portraits of club members in their chosen regalia, shot by the emerging New Zealand photographer Pati Tyrell, adorn the walls. In natural-history-museum-style cabinets you can find conch shells and carvings; above the bar hang taiaha (spears) and patu (clubs). Woven flax mats are on the floor—visitors are asked to remove their shoes—and Tino Rangatiratanga and United Tribes flags, representing New Zealand’s indigenous rights movement, hang next to the bar. For the duration of the biennial, the SaVAge K’lub has been hosting parties, formal talks, un-structured art-making, and general revelry. Depending on the hour, it’s a spot for an after-party, a good conversation with a stranger, some food and a cup of tea.
The idea for the SaVAge K’lub came to Raymond in 2010, when she was doing a residency at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver. Among library papers, she discovered a calling card for the Savage Club, a private club founded in London in the mid-19th Century, initially as a hipper alternative to even stodgier, older clubs. At the time, exploration was driving the U.K.’s colonialist expansion in the Pacific, as well as popular fascination with “dusky maidens,” “noble savages,” and Pacific art and artifacts. Raymond learned the Savages, as they called themselves, spread all over the Commonwealth, at one time counting 14 chapters in New Zealand alone; membership was male only, club houses were stuffed with indigenous artifacts, and there are photos of club rituals with members “dressing up in native clothing doing God knows what,” says Raymond. “I realized what had started with a Bohemian, artistic sort of focus ended up as a highly privileged male space,” she notes. (Prince Philip, J.M. Barrie, and W. Somerset Maugham all are or were Savage Club members.) “Funny how that works.”
Raymond decided to found her own version of the club, one focused on Pacific Islander artists and other indigenous people who have felt “what it is to be brought up under the mantle of being considered savage,” she says. In the nine years since, SaVAge K’lubs have popped up in London, New York, New Zealand, and elsewhere, and the artist-members form a loose collective that extends around the globe.
The capitalization in “SaVAge” highlights the Samoan concept of va, or the space between things—a relational space. It’s the kind of space Raymond wants the club to be. “We’re looking at art as a social activity,” she says. “We’re looking at performative as opposed to performance. We’re looking at ritual, we’re looking at grassroots knowledge. It’s a space where we share with our ancestral history….Here, the stories we’re wanting to tell are our stories. We don’t see them anywhere else, so we have to make them.”
“We stand between being deadly serious and ridiculously absurd,” says Raymond.
Mixed media artist Bernice Akamine started learning about homelessness in the mid-90s, when she moved from Hawaii to the Bay Area to attend art school. She was shocked by the number of people she saw there living on the streets. One day soon after arriving in Oakland, a series of bureaucratic mixups left her locked out of her bank account, unable to register for classes, and scared about paying for rent and food. Then, she encountered a homeless man on the street.
“This homeless man came up to me,” Akamine recalls. “He was totally drunk, he was singing. And I just started crying. He asks me what’s wrong, and I say, ‘I can’t access my money, my rent’s due tomorrow, I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ And he reaches into his pocket and he pulls out this money and goes, ‘Here.’ And I say, what’s that? And he says, ‘Money. I’m giving you money.’ I say, but that’s all your money. And he says, ‘You’ll never make it on the street. I will.’ Of course, I couldn’t take his money—but that really changed how I was looking at people.”
When Akamine returned to Hawaii in 1997, she noticed the increase in homelessness on the islands. Wanting to make a piece that would draw attention to the problem, she started volunteering with an organization called the Grey Tarp Project. “That was my entree: having these grey tarps,” she recalls. “I would go and pass out these tarps, and then I would talk to them and record their stories about how they were living there and how it came to be.”
Akamine is part Native Hawaiian, and she was struck by how many homeless people of Native descent she encountered; the stereotype of homelessness on the islands is that it’s a problem that comes from elsewhere, that homeless people from the mainland seek out Hawaii’s good weather and social services. (In fact, Native Hawaiians are over-represented among the islands’ homeless population.) Akamine was meeting Native Hawaiians who, already stretched by the high cost of living, had become homeless through eviction, unemployment, or other calamities. “They started out with jobs, and homes, and suddenly they found themselves in a position where they could not afford their home anymore,” she says. “Maybe they were not working, maybe they were on drugs, or dealing with alcoholism. Whatever it was, something very traumatic happened in their lives, and they ended up living on the beaches.”
“We’re not homeless, we’re houseless; Hawaii is our home.”
Akamine often quotes a saying among homeless Native Hawaiians: “We’re not homeless, we’re houseless; Hawaii is our home.” Motivated by questions of heritage, home, land, and justice, Akamine created a series of outdoor installations she called Ku’u One Hanau, which literally means “sands of my birth.” The pieces comprised an aluminum tent frame, like the ones many homeless people use, draped not in a tarp or a tent, but in an enormous Hawaiian state flag. Akamine continued the series this year at the biennial, where she mounted five tent installations at sites around Honolulu.
Hawaii has the highest per-capita rate of homelessness of any state. The symbolism of the flag, Akamine says, is not about nationalism so much as it is about an appeal to identity—she hopes the flag will give passing Hawaiians a feeling of “identifying with the work before they even realize what it’s about.” Of the flag, she says, “To me, it’s a rallying call, in part. It’s also a sign of protest.”
Source: Read Full Article